Why Does Wine Need to Breathe?
If you like a good glass of wine, you’ve probably heard people talking about ‘letting wine breathe’, ‘decanting’ and ‘aerating’ wine. It’s not as difficult as it sounds to enjoy quality wine at its best, though.
What does letting a wine breathe mean?
‘Letting a wine breathe’, or ‘aerating’ it, is as simple as opening it before serving, pouring it from the bottle into a decanter or (less often) a carafe, and letting it reach room temperature. It is not simply enough to open the bottle and leave it undisturbed, or put it near a fire or radiator to warm it up. Using a proper decanting method means that more of the wine can get to the air thanks to the larger surface area of the decanter. Think of the width of a wine bottle neck compared to a decanter – there is a reason why funnels or sieves are a wine lover’s friend. Also many decanters pair a wide neck with a squat design, which increases the liquid’s surface area even more. The act of pouring the wine from the bottle into the decanter also mixes the liquid as well as adding air to it.
What equipment is needed to allow a wine to breathe?
- Foil cutter – to open the foil at the top of the wine bottle
- Corkscrew – to extract the cork
- Funnel – to pour the wine into a decanter
- Decanter – to hold the wine until it is drunk
Alternatively, a wine pourer or aerator may be used to decant the wine from the bottle into the decanter, or even straight into a glass if the wine is one which only needs to breathe for a short time before being consumed. Many modern pouring devices have aeration holes and filters to stop the sediment from ending up in the glass when poured in this manner. There is even one device that can both seal and pour your wine, just not at the same time.
What does letting a wine breathe do to the wine?
Letting a wine breathe brings out its flavor – some wines simply taste better with aeration. By mixing air with the liquid, the aroma of the wine can be fully appreciated. It has been said that wine tastes smoother after being left to breathe, but it’s important to get the length of breathing time right. Any red wine under eight years old will only need an hour to breathe before being enjoyed. Reds over eight years old will need longer to breathe, mainly because they’ve been in the bottle longer so need longer to wake up. Vintage reds often do not need to breathe at all; their flavor comes from their age. They will still need to be decanted though, in order to separate the sediment from the wine. Many white wines, champagne, rose/blush/pink and sparkling wines do not need to be aerated either. Typically, they need to be refrigerated for at least 24 hours before being opened. Heavier bodied whites should be treated as honorary reds, and decanted shortly before drinking.
Wine connoisseurs often liken letting a wine breathe to someone who needs to walk around after a long car journey. Once they’ve stretched their legs and restored their sluggish circulation, they feel much better. Wine is the same. It’s much more alive once it’s had a chance to breathe. This period of aeration can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours depending on the wine. It’s best not to leave it too long or the taste could degrade, though. Many white wines will need refrigeration rather than aeration, while decanting a red serves both the purpose of aerating it and separating the sediment from the wine.
What happens to wine when it is aerated?
Aeration triggers oxidation, which eventually leads to a loss of color, flavor and aroma. This is also known as ‘flattening’. The trick is to drink the wine after the initial blast of oxygen has brought out the best taste, but before it flattens from having been left too long. Pouring it through a funnel into a decanter, then swirling it in the glass, starts the aeration process and releases the notes and aromas often described on the bottle. It is at this stage that wine connoisseurs often breathe deeply, to experience the full effect of the aroma, before taking their first sip.
Aeration also triggers evaporation, and not just the humorous kind caused by drinking a good glass of wine quickly. Dense wines need more aeration, hence why a young red will only need an hour’s breathing time to be drinkable while an older one will need longer. Delicate older wines also benefit from seeing the inside of a decanter, as they will have more sediment. True, the sediment gives the wine flavour, but it’s not a good idea to drink it. It tastes unpleasant and feels gritty in the mouth.
An alternative to using a decanter is to leave the wine to sit in a large wine glass for around 15 minutes; an approach which works well with vintage red wines. Leaving it alone is often easier said than done, however.
Some top sommeliers even recommend double decanting – pouring the wine out of the bottle into a decanter and then back into the bottle again before serving.
It is considered better to use a decanter for wine than a carafe, as carafes are more suitable for water and juice.
What types of wines need to breathe?
As previously mentioned, only certain types of wine need to breathe. Young reds including Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux need to breathe to mellow the tannins and produce a fuller flavor. They should be left for no longer than an hour.
Bottles of aging reds with sediment should be taken out of their storage (which is usually on its side) and left standing upright for a couple of days to let the sediment settle. They should then be slowly poured into a decanter to avoid disturbing the sediment and be drunk shortly afterwards, as they do not like to sit once opened. On no account should they be left to breathe, as this will be extremely detrimental to the flavor.
Dry full bodied whites such as Burgundies, white Bordeaux and Alsace wines also benefit from being allowed to breathe. The clue is in the fact that they are full bodied, so adding oxygen into the mix will improve the flavor, just as with the reds. Some people also prefer to decant Rhone wines just before drinking, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
Vintage port, or Porto, should be treated similarly to aging red wine. Bottles should be left upright for the sediment to settle then the contents should be decanted and drunk more or less straight away. Leaving Porto decanted for too long results in a noticeable drop in the depth of flavor.
Which wines don’t need to breathe?
Regular and tawny port, by contrast, does not need to breathe. These ports are sediment-free and not as dense as Porto. Most white (including Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay), Champagne and sparkling wines can safely be left in the fridge until being opened. In fact, insufficiently chilled champagne and sparkling wine has more tendency to bubble up and over the top of glasses, and that’s just a waste of good fizz.
Light bodied reds including Pinot Noir, Burgundy, Beaujolais, and Cotes du Rhone, some Chiantis and Zinfandels are also fine to drink without being left to breathe first. As tastes and winemaking techniques have changed, so younger wines have become more widely available. These have little to no sediment and can be poured into a glass straight from the bottle. In addition, any wine at the cheaper end of the market tends to be produced to be drunk, not kept.
How can I let my wine breathe?
Firstly, check the wine bottle itself for any instructions. Some wines will have serving tips as well as food pairings. If the wine definitely has sediment this should be visible through the bottle when held to the light. Older wines are more likely to contain sediment as this is a naturally occurring part of the winemaking process. It is advisable to stand the bottle upright until all the sediment has settled. This could take a couple of hours or a couple of days, depending on the age of the wine and the amount of sediment.
Once the sediment has settled, the wine should be steadily poured into a decanter. Done properly, this will leave the sediment at the bottom of the bottle, not at the bottom of the decanter. Decanting is often best done in front of a window or light, so that the sediment can be seen throughout. The wider neck of the decanter allows more air to get to the wine, so as soon as it is decanted, it will start to breathe.
Letting wine breathe needn’t be complicated. Wine decanters in a variety of materials are widely available through both online and offline retailers, as are pouring spouts, some of which even have an inbuilt filter to catch the sediment. This makes it easy for those wine drinkers who would like to try the odd occasional bottle of more expensive wine to be properly equipped. Wine accessories are also great gifts, and most wine drinkers end up with a wide selection of bottle stoppers, pourers, cutters, aerators, decanters and glasses.